Hello again. The day that Carlo Ancelotti returned to Real Madrid, a chance conversation about something completely different unexpectedly bringing him back to Spain six years later, he looked around Valdebebas and saw familiar faces everywhere, comfort in the lack of change. “The same physios, the same kit men, the same journalists, the same vision, the same demands of greatness,” as he put it. “Everything is immutable: the only thing that changes is the coach.”
It is there, anyway. Since he left, Madrid have been through five of them: Rafa Benítez, Zinedine Zidane, Julen Lopetegui, Santi Solari and Zidane again. Barcelona have been through six. By contrast, Sunday’s opponents from across the capital – rivals who have proven as big as Barcelona, at least for Ancelotti – have not been through any. Atlético Madrid have changed homes, moving out of the Vicente Calderón and heading to the Metropolitano 22km north-east, but not their coach. And so a familiar face awaits Ancelotti at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Diego Simeone was in charge at Atlético when Ancelotti came the first time and was in charge when he left. He was still in charge when Ancelotti came the second time and it is no great leap to suggest he still will be when the Italian goes again. It will be a decade this month, not 14 years as Ancelotti said, but Simeone is different, an outlier now. Not just in Spain but anywhere. And not just different, a “dream” to use Ancelotti’s admiring words on the eve of the first derby of his second spell. “God willing, I’d be here 14 years like he has been at Atlético,” he said, the smile showing that he knows that isn’t going to happen.
But then Ancelotti didn’t think this would happen, either. A phone call in the summer about possible player signings ended up with his. “A fantastic surprise,” as he put it in Corriere dello Sport. “There is no better place in the world to live or work.” No better place for a derby either. An unexpected second opportunity, a return to a place he missed and thought left behind was a chance for the Italian to enjoy it for as long as it lasts, every day a bonus.
While Ancelotti says that defeats hurt him physically, leaving him unable to sleep, he is a man at ease, beyond all the nonsense and the noise now. “I’m in a phase of my life when I just want to be at peace with the world,” he said. “I have been in football since 1977, almost 46 years, 30 of them coaching. I don’t have the time or the desire to fight. When Florentino [Pérez] wants to sack me, I won’t get angry.”
There has been comfort in the familiarity, but maybe not this time as he looks to his right, towards the visitor’s technical area. “What Simeone has done at Atlético – build something important, put the club among the best in Europe, fighting every year, winning titles, and still doing so in an impeccable manner – is something that all coaches want,” Ancelotti said. “To be at a club a long time, leave your mark, your signature on it, that is the dream of all coaches.”
He speaks from experience. Simeone left his mark on Ancelotti, too; he is witness to how the revolution at Atlético revived the rivalry, taking it to peaks it may never have reached. As managers they could not be more different, especially not now – at least on the surface. The Argentinian leaps, paces and shouts, waving frantically, conducting the crowd, never still on the touchline right up to the moment when he turns and sprints down the tunnel. The Italian rarely does more than tip chewing gum down his throat and raise an eye brow. Between them, though, they have raised hell, engaging in the biggest battles.
Ancelotti was only at Madrid for two seasons but he faced Simeone in 13 derbies, including a Copa del Rey semi-final and the first European Cup final between two teams from the same city, 70,000 fans heading west down the Badajoz road to Lisbon. No game was played more often, nor mattered as much. None felt so momentous, not even the clásicos. The derby had probably never been this competitive and they were not always nice, either. “What a horrible team they are,” one member of Madrid’s backroom staff said as he departed the Calderón defeated one night. They knew they were in a proper fight.
Ancelotti saw Atlético win the league – their first in 14 years, only second in 38 – perhaps the most unlikely there has ever been, a genuine overturning of the status quo, and maybe Atlético’s greatest success. If only because exactly seven days later, a Sergio Ramos goal on 92.48, denied them the European Cup and gave Madrid their 10th, an obsession. Without it, Ancelotti might have been dismissed; instead, he will always be the coach that won the décima. In his time there, he suffered a 4-0 defeat, and didn’t win in the league.
Victory here would not only be his first derby success in La Liga; it would also take a huge step towards taking this season’s title. And that would be Ancelotti’s first in Spain to go with those won in England, France, Italy and Germany. The position could hardly be better, far more so than anyone anticipated when he arrived as a popular, steady and comfortable if improvised choice of coach, a man with a calm class about everything he does and says. Including refusing to say it’s over, the respect for his rival too great, for the familiar face leading them.
Madrid have everyone available, Karim Benzema back after injury, they have gone nine without defeat. But Ancelotti insisted: “What I can say is what has happened – we have done better than the other teams – but that’s talking about the past. If the league ends today, it is over. Sadly, it doesn’t end today: we have to play six more months and I don’t know what can happen next.”
He added: “Half a league title? I don’t know. We would have three more points over a rival that will be fighting for the league they won last season. But I don’t want to put more pressure on this game because it the pressure is already there – and that’s a good thing.
They have many players I like. Griezmann, Suárez is a fantastic striker. Rodrigo de Paul has played very well. At the back they have ‘pessimistic’ players, and I like that in defenders. They have a great goalkeeper.
“They’re a complete team. It will be a game that’s naturally competitive, with duels, against a team fighting for the same objective as us.”